New education superintendent reverses plan for Williamsburg Co. schools

The state's education superintendent has put the brakes on a plan to return control of the Williamsburg County School District to the county’s school board.
Published: May. 1, 2023 at 7:00 PM EDT|Updated: May. 1, 2023 at 7:28 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - South Carolina’s new superintendent of education has put the brakes on a plan to return control of the Williamsburg County School District to the county’s school board.

New Education Superintendent Ellen Weaver, who took office in January, says she is reversing the plan former Superintendent Molly Spearman announced last year.

Marva Cannion, the chairwoman of the district’s Board of Trustees, has been waiting five years for the Department of Education to pull out of her district.

“We appreciate everything they’ve done. But it’s time now.,” Cannion said. “You know, it’s like company at your house. We Love it. Come stay and stay a long time, enjoy yourself, but now it’s time to go home.”

Spearman declared a state of emergency in 2018. In her decision to take over the district, she pointed to financial mismanagement that cost the district more than $600,000 that could have been used to provide specialized instruction to students with disabilities. Cannion said those issues have now been resolved.

“We have invested in a warehouse database to help with ensuring that the data inputted by people are put in right,” Cannion said. “The last five district audits have been clear. We feel like we have the personnel in place now to handle it.”

Despite Spearman telling the board she planned to hand control over to the school board last year, Weaver informed the board on March 27 that would not be happening.

“The current State Superintendent and her leadership team have reviewed the Williamsburg County data and are committed to partnering closely with the district and board of trustees in ensuring excellent outcomes for its students,” Weaver’s team wrote in a statement.

High school parent Terrance Scott says the state can still do that as a partner, not the sole authority.

“Most of the time when you have someone from the outside looking in, they assume and most of the time when you assume you assume wrong,” Scott said. “We are the ones that are in the house with our children. We are the ones that are in the community with our children. We need to allow our school board along with the community to come back together and do what’s best for our children.”

“The improvement objectives identified for Williamsburg County Schools specifically spoke to needed academic improvements,” Weaver’s letter states.

However, an analysis of the data suggests the school district has seen a significant decline in achievement since the state took over.

Before the state took over, graduation rates were at 84.6%. Last year, it dropped to 74.4%. In math, 18.2% of students were meeting expectations before the takeover. Today, it’s 14.6%.

Both numbers are below state averages, but they are trending upward. Pandemic learning loss certainly played a role in the slumping academic data, but Cannion says every district took a hit during the pandemic. She says it would be unfair to hold the district hostage when it was the financial responsibility that first drew the state to Williamsburg County, issues that have now been fixed.

“We are competent, we are confident and we are ready to implement the educational program appropriate for our students,” Cannion said. “We want to do the job that we have been elected to do.”

Parents like Melissa McClary feel the same way.

“They [the state] don’t know exactly what’s going on here, exactly what’s needed here,” McClary said. “The school board is local. They know what’s going on in the community. They know what’s needed.”

McClary has two children still in the district. She knew what it was like before the state took over and says she’s concerned the state could have ulterior motives for sticking around.

“It makes no sense to me,” McClary said. “They’re not telling the parents anything. They’re not telling the community anything. So, whatever the secret agenda is, I mean, we don’t know.”

The Department of Education declined a request for an interview but sent a statement saying there is no timeline for when the state of emergency could end and when control of the district could be handed back over to local leaders.